It’s hard to believe that in 2005 “Google” was not a verb, and in 2009 the iPhone 4 was not yet launched.
There is no doubt that over the last decade we have become more adept at using technology apps and platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
My mother is over seventy and she watches Mass online and uses GiF-ki in WhatsApp. But I fear that the gap in our understanding of these technologies is moving at a much slower pace than their development.
Last week, I participated in several virtual events on the occasion of Safe Internet Week. The interest in this topic is huge and perhaps testifies to how much parents are fighting for their children’s relationship with technology.
The main questions of parents in recent years have not changed and predictably include two topics: “At what age should a child give a smartphone?” and “How much time in front of the screen is appropriate for a child or teenager?” Although these are reasonable questions, there are no answers to them. As the use of technology becomes more widespread, it has become a much more subtle subject than these issues reflect.
I would like to say that X is the exact age when a child is ready to negotiate in a networked world, and Y is the optimal amount of screen time a child should spend to maximize benefits and minimize the negative consequences of using them. But when describing the impact of something on our mental well-being, accuracy and clarity are often impossible.
It is also impossible to determine “good” or “bad” technology. Firstly, because it has not been long enough to determine the long-term impact of technology on our mental health, and secondly, because it is almost impossible to separate it from other parts of our lives, it is difficult to make substantial because of the effect of ‘claims’.
The inconvenient truth is that technology is not good or bad, it is both. And despite our drive for black-and-white answers, the world of technology is clearly gray. Technology has become so ingrained in our lives that disputes over the separation of offline and online have become contentious.
The internet has become too big for control, and attempts to regulate this space have been futile. While we would all like to see the development of a safer Internet, my experience of the last decade shows that this is unlikely. Anonymity is one of the main attractions in space, so the mandatory introduction of identity markers and age verification threatens the cyber world with a loss of attractiveness.
On behalf of technology companies, there is also a lack of will to make the Internet more secure, as they believe that lack of regulation is part of the appeal of the Internet.
In Ireland, we are still developing a digital security commissioner’s job description, while Metaverse is developing more advanced virtual reality and immersive technology. This shows how far behind the curve we are in monitoring the impact on children and adults.
Focus on quality, not quantity
“Time spent” online should not be the focus, we need to focus on “time spent well”. We do not measure children’s diet by the amount of time they spend at the kitchen table, nor do we measure the health of their diet by how much time it takes them to eat their food. We strive for a healthy balanced diet of fruits, vegetables and other nutrients, a fight against chocolate bars or a trip to McDonald’s. No one is asking us to expect children to live without ice cream, but we will not encourage them to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Not all children are the same. Some may regulate their delicacy and enjoy apples from time to time, while others need to fix a press for sweets because they are bad self-regulators and will eat junk food until they feel bad.
The approach to building a healthy relationship with food depends on the temperament of the child, the same applies to technology. We are not saying that at the age of 13 all children can fully control their food choices. If we did, there could be teens who were on a Taytos and Weetabix diet. So why are we saying the same thing about children’s technological diets? Although technology companies have decided that we should buy our children smartphones for their confirmation or before they go to high school, this presumed readiness is an urban myth.
The age of the child is not a reliable indicator of his ability to negotiate in the online environment. Nor can we rely too much on parental control programs to do parenting work. Preparing a child for the online world involves preparing the child, not the online world. “There’s no app for your lap,” and so conversations that prepare your child for self-regulation are more effective than a number of parental control restrictions. It is better to teach a child to adjust their diet than to keep the lock on the press for a treat.
The approach to technology should be the same as to food. Balanced nutrition using good technology, such as using screens for homework combined with time for less productive activities, such as watching youtube screaming while playing a video game.
Every child is different
The main thing is that parents need to adapt the technology of the diet to the child. Those who are more inclined to make smart choices and self-regulate may need much less observation than those who have difficulty with self-regulation. This characteristic is not related to arbitrary concepts such as the age of the child, but to their vulnerability.
There are many 11-year-olds who, if given responsibility, would be able to choose a balanced diet on their own, while there are 17-year-olds who would make bad decisions when it comes to choosing a diet. Therefore, we need to shift the focus from content regulation to desire regulation. This does not mean that continued efforts to control harmful content, such as sexual abuse, hate speech or racism, should not continue, but that a parallel process of improving our media literacy and self-regulatory education should take place in parallel.
Even if you clean up the internet and remove all the harmful content, you will still have kids who would spend nine hours on YouTube watching cats on skateboards. It’s not illegal or inappropriate, but it’s not helpful to use their time.
To improve our relationship with technology, we need to focus on people, not cars. “User” is a critical variable, and to build a good technology relationship, we need to support users from an early age so that they become critical consumers of technology and make choices that work for them and not for technology companies.
It’s not just that kids spend too much time in front of screens – as adults, we should be an example. When you say “get off YouTube” by scrolling through your Instagram, it’s no different than saying “eat porridge” by chewing a pack of chips.
So, just like building a healthy relationship with food, when it comes to helping children have a healthy relationship with technology, we also have a key role to play in this.